Noel Whelan: Half a year of government has been lost

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have set a slow pace for the new parliament

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader  Micheál Martin. File photograph: Maxpix/Julien Behal

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. File photograph: Maxpix/Julien Behal

 

The current lack of productivity and instability in our politics is only in part a consequence of the unprecedented outcome of the election, it also arises from a dangerous lack of political leadership.

All parties and Independents bear some responsibility for this but, as the two largest parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael carry most of the responsibility.

The fact that more than 10 weeks after the election we have a weakened, makeshift, minority Government, an incoherent Opposition and an unproductive parliament arises from choices made by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and the slow pace they have set.

Not only was the formation of Government delayed but, in addition, the effective operation of parliament is to be held up.

It emerged this week that many of the key proposals from the Dáil reform committee will not be implemented until July, with no hope of them being bedded down before the autumn.

It also emerged that little if any substantial legislation will be enacted this year. Oireachtas committees are also unlikely to get into their stride before the summer recess.

Pre-election shutdown

The election was at the end of February, and a pre-election shutdown has been in place in government departments since Christmas.

It is now the middle of May, and the new Cabinet has met only twice. Ministers, half of whom are in Cabinet for the first time, have only had a fortnight to read into their briefs.

Half a year of government has been lost, and the pace of government for the next six months will be pedestrian.

Without a working majority in the Dáil or Seanad it will be the pace of hobbled pedestrians.

The additional impact and oversight, such as it is, that Ministers of State can have in departments is also delayed; most of them are only getting to look at their new offices this morning.

Meanwhile, the new Seanad remains incomplete awaiting the appointment of the Taoiseach’s 11 Senators.

In the resultant political vacuum, it’s hardly surprising that the two stories that dominated the Government’s opening fortnight were farcical in the first instance and overblown in the second.

The most high-profile Minister of the fortnight became Finian McGrath, firstly over whether he would pay his water charges and then on account of his views on the smoking ban.

The most prominent issue of the fortnight arose not from any daring new initiative by the Government but from reheated controversies about policing and justice issues.

The selective leaking and counter-leaking of a small number of what must be thousands of pages of transcript of the private proceedings of the O’Higgins commission has distorted public and political consideration of the commission’s report.

Important things that Judge Kevin O’Higgins had to say about weaknesses in policing and the denial of rights to victims have been drowned out.

The only substantial thing to happen in our politics this week was the passage through to Second Stage of Fianna Fáil’s Private Members’ Bill on variable mortgage interest rates. It is important not to overstate this, however.

The Bill was not “passed” as RTÉ headlines misleadingly suggested on Wednesday and Thursday; it merely cleared the first of several legislative hurdles.

The draft legislation still has to go through committee and final stages in the Dáil, which could take months.

It is extraordinary that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael did not engage more meaningful on this proposed legislation during the weeks of their slow pre-Government negotiations.

There are hundreds of words, and even a special appendix, about water charges in the framework agreement negotiated between the two parties but there is only one vague sentence on the plight of variable mortgage holders.

The Second Stage passage of this Bill in circumstances where the relevant Minister has expressed reservations about the constitutionality of some of its provisions raise fascinating issues about the constitutional proofing of legislation in the new political reality.

Contested legislation

It has always been the case that a government cannot propose a Bill which the Attorney General advises is unconstitutional. However, no such constraints operate on the opposition.

Now that the Opposition is in the majority, at least some constitutionally contested legislation is likely to be enacted.

This will lead to either a more active usage by President Michael D Higgins of his powers to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality or, alternatively, to having constitutionally suspect legislation sitting on the statute book primed like a legal time bomb until an appropriate case arises to challenge it.

It all tends toward constitutional uncertainty and lots of work for lawyers.

Meanwhile, the most significant development in terms of this Government’s shelf life was the decision of Michael Fitzmaurice to leave the Independent Alliance.

The Government’s prospects seem even more precarious now then when it was formed two weeks ago.

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